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The classics win out over the obscure. Always have, always will

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You want wisdom in wine words? Consider these: “In many centers of wine hipness these days, what matters is not how a wine tastes and how the associated sensory memories make you feel, but instead the social source of pleasure derived from tasting—and professing to like—a much ballyhooed wine that is made in a style that is currently in vogue.”

That’s from Andy Peay, in his Peay Vineards Fall newsletter. Now, Andy was being diplomatic in his choice of words. Let me put the case more bluntly: There is an insidious tendency today for some sommeliers and insecure critics to praise obscure varieties and temporary styles that, when all is said and done, don’t actually taste very good. That a winemaker, like Andy Peay, has to come out and fulminate against “wine fads” is almost unprecedented—but then, so is the emergence of a maven class that seems hellbent on revolution for its own sake.

How else to explain the cult-like hosannas for low-alcohol Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California? Andy Peay found a similar phenomenon for the offbeat in Copenhagen, where “all I could drink was wine esoterica” because the “tastemakers” are addicted to the strange and unfamiliar: Trusseau, Jura whites, Biodynamic wines “and other wine styles/regions currently in vogue” most of which Andy found “flawed and, mostly, downright unpalatable.” (Orange wine, anyone?) This is why Andy entitled his opinion piece “Yes, but be delicious”: It’s fine to be esoteric, but please, at least taste good! The first duty of wine, after all, is and always has been—not to satisfy the eclectic taste of bored gatekeepers—but to taste good and give pleasure.

Nor is this drumbeat for the “new” showing any signs of slowing down. Yestrrday’s San Francisco Chronicle, in the wine section, headlined the lead article “The next new wine thing,” a header that editors who have nothing else to say routinely trot out, offering timely proof of Andy Peay’s argument that “Wine writers need something new to write about.” Actually, they—we—do not; there is plenty to say about tradition. But wine writers’ editors and publishers, driven by more commercial motives than merely good writing, tell them to find something new—and so they dutifully do.

Go back to Andy’s phrase, “a social source of pleasure.” That is a compound noun containing a vast trove of implications. ”Social pleasure” is the opposite of “sensual pleasure.” It means, in essence, that when one of these wine faddists tastes something he or she believes to be “currently in vogue” among his peers, he actually is tasting—not the wine itself—but the idea of the wine in his mind! This is a form of idealism that is disconnected from reality and that, under different circumstances, could be described as hallucinatory.

Now, we don’t want our wine gatekeepers to be hallucinating, do we, but there is truth when Andy Peay continues: “Instead of highlighting the classic wines of the world, many tastemakers—including sommeliers, writers, and wine organizations—are focusing on what is novel in wine…”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a focus. Indeed, one could argue that somms and writers owe it to themselves and to their professions to seek out “what is novel in wine.” But all things in balance. There’s a huge difference between seeking out what is novel, and ignoring or, even worse, trashing everything that is traditional. But this latter approach marks too many modern tastemakers, who seem to believe that, if their father or grandfather liked it, then it is not worth considering.

One wonders if some modern tastemakers, and here I include bloggers, have even tasted the classics. Do they understand them? Do they know that there is a reason why some wines have been classic, and why some never have been–say, orange wine or Jura wine? Do they understand that, long after their careers have ended, the classics will remain the classics—and the obscure will be just as obscure as ever?

You know, sixteen years ago I went to a workshop at U.C. Davis entitled “Emerging Varietals.” Lots of important people were there: from Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, and the ubiquitous Randall Grahm. The purpose of the event: To discover “the next big things” in varietals. We tasted everything from Graciano and dry Touriga Nacional to Trinkadeira, Greco di Tufo and Gaglioppo—in order to, as one of the organizers explained, “take [winemaking in California] to the next level.”

Well, none of those varieties worked out particularly well, and I doubt, rather sadly, if any of Randall’s plans to breed 10,000 new varieties on his San Juan Bautista ranch will work out, either. (Randall was the subject of the Chronicle’s Sunday article, the one I referred to.) With all due respect to Randall, who has been interested in “emerging varieties” for a long time, the public has not been clamoring for them; and the gatekeeper somms and writers who get so worked up over obscure varieties seem to be a fickle bunch. They get bored easily; they do want some shiny new thing every five minutes. That does not seem to be a good audience to cultivate, unless you’re making, say, Gaglioppo, and if you are, good luck! I mean, seriously, does anyone think that in fifty years people are going to look back and say, “Gee, California really screwed up with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc”? I don’t think so.

  1. “Been there, done that.”

    Just a few off the top of my head . . .

    Inglenook Charbono. Ridge Alicante Bouschet. Ridge Carignane. Ridge Barbera. Dalla Valle Sangiovese. Duxoup Napa Gamay (a.k.a. Valdiguie?). DeRose Negrette (a.k.a Pinot St. George). DeRose Cabernet Pfeffier. Arrowood Petit Verdot. Rock Wall Tannat. Palmina Dolcetto. Palmina Barbara. Domaine Chandon Pinot Meunier.

    Clendenen Aligote. Carmenet French Colombard. Fanucchi Trousseau Gris. Rancho Sisquoc Sylvaner. Palmina Arneis. Palmina Tocai Friuliao. Palmina Malvasia Bianca.

    Supplemental reading: http://www.winecentury.com/about/

    Groucho Marx: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

  2. Bill Stephenson says:

    “One wonders if some modern tastemakers, and here I include bloggers, have even tasted the classics”

    A fair question.

    First, many of the classics are simply out of financial reach for the average blogger. Do I make the car payment or splurge on that 2000 BDX?

    Second, I have found it is incumbent in the “tastemakers” job to reject and even deride what is popular in order to establish their bonafides. A different breed of snobbery, and one that doesn’t encourage me to buy their current fave.

    I enjoy trying new varietals. But I’ll never quit drinking the classics

  3. Is this a guest post by Robert Parker’s & Judith Martin’s love child? Parker’s animal hatred replaced by an extended pinky.

    But why begrudge exploration? Hype is communication table stakes these days. Nobody is interested in a “weird little grape that is obscure for a reason” so you’ve got to call it the next big thing.

    You’ve spent your career informing and that’s quite different from marketing.

  4. Bill Haydon says:

    “In many centers of wine hipness these days, what matters is not how a wine tastes and how the associated sensory memories make you feel, but instead the social source of pleasure derived from tasting—and professing to like—a much ballyhooed wine that is made in a style that is currently in vogue.”

    This comment just reeks of rank hypocrisy. Nobody in California had a problem with this when it was the latest cult Napa jambomb Cab or Buttery RRV Chardonnay that were currently in vogue. It’s only after the American consumer took off the training wheels and started to appreciate nuance, balance, food compatibility and a bit of acid that liking what was currently in vogue became a sin.

    Barring any overt flaws such as oxidation or excessive levels of VA or brett, being delicious is in the eye of the beholder. And those eyes are increasingly turning away from California and towards Europe. Perhaps Andy would find a slatey, minerally Casavecchia from Central Campania to be unpalatable, but that’s his opinion, but more and more consumers (not just the mythical “gatekeepers” lamented about on many a Napa veranda) are finding them to be far more palatable than another cookie-cutter jam and oak bomb from California. As I’ve said many times, why aren’t these restaurants going out of business if their wine lists are so out of touch with their customers? At the very least, why aren’t the gatekeepers being fired and replaced with people who will put the Calijuice back onto the lists?

    A fad is not a trend. A trend is something fundamental and with real staying power while a fad is a momentary dalliance with something unusual and often in bad taste, such as leisure suits in the 70s. I hate to break it to Andy, but overripe, overoaked and overpriced California wine was a fad. The return to Europe is a trend.

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    I’ll add one more thing. The hand-wringing over these obscure varietals is nothing more than a convenient strawman. Oh, it’s far more soothing to lament a hipster sommelier’s varietal of the moment that’s not even planted in California than to actually address the real problem, and that’s that Europe can simply make better Cabernet, Pinot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, in a style more in-tune with Americans’ newly matured tastes and at far better prices than California can.

    My best selling wines aren’t Casavecchia or Trousseau. They’re not driving my company. What is are small production, domaine bottled Chardonnay from Monferrato ($120/case wholesale) or Sauvignon Blanc from Bergerac ($108) or Petit Chateau Bordeaux ($144) . Great wines that I can offer for between a quarter and a half what a similar small production wine from California would cost. That is what is kicking California’s ass up and down the East Coast and in Chicago, not orange wine. And from the looks of my distributors’ warehouses, what has happened in DC is now happening in North Carolina and what’s happened in Chicago is now happening in Ohio.

  6. Currently I am in Sicily tasting a lot of “non classic” varietals. Catarratto, Insolia, Nero d’Avola, Nero Mascalese, Frappato, etc. Not missing that ripe fruit, oak flavored California wine at all.

    As far as the classics, if you aren’t very wealthy or a big name critic or old enough and lucky enough to have been able to try them when they were still inexpensive, you never will so why even pay attention to them.

  7. As a former wine writer, you should give Esther Mobley who has just started at the SF Chron replacing Mr. Bonné, a break. Also, as a philosophy major, you should appreciate that she got her BA (from Smith) in Eng. Lit. Besides she worked not only at WS but at your former publication. She has paid her dues.

    But the real point worth making, related to those above, is that this is one short sidebar feature that will run weekly on a array of releases including the “classics”. Ms. Mobley hasn’t jumped on any faddist bandwagon. Many readers will like to know about these off beat varitals, PARTICULARLY BECAUSE OF THEIR REAL WORLD PRICE POINTS. We need more wine writers bringing under $30 wines to the attention of consumers.

  8. Kurt Burris says:

    My wife and I drank our last bottle of Lafite on our most recent anniversary. I think that wine would count as a classic. And I will never turn down an opportunity to drink more of it. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to buy any more. But we can afford Portuguese dry Touriga Nacional and Trinkadeira, and some are delicious. They may never make a wine as long lived as a classified growth, but at $180 @ case versus $900 @ bottle I can deal.

  9. Jonathan King says:

    Oh, yikes, that Duxoup Gamay/Valdiguie. I’d forgotten one of the least enjoyable bottles of California wine in my experience.

  10. I encourage wine enthusiasts to form weekend winetasting groups, pool their financial resources, and procure “classic” wines for “theme” tastings.

    One invaluable resource is the wine auction world — sourcing bottles from live auctions, or from their online “retail” stores.

    A primer from the Los Angeles Times:

    “Older California Cabernets Are Within Reach at Auction”

    Link: http://www.latimes.com/style/la-fo-wine23apr23-story.html

  11. “Europe can simply make better Cabernet, Pinot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, in a style more in-tune with Americans’ newly matured tastes and at far better prices than California can.”

    Bill Haydon, with regard to price/cost, it is nearly impossible to make any of the above varietals from Napa or Sonoma County and sell it for $120/case wholesale and be profitable on the wine as a small producer in Sonoma County. It is viable under a California Appellation and produced from outside Napa and Sonoma County, but that’s a volume game (enter Constellation, Gallo, Bronco). Only those large companies have the economies of scale to produce and distribute wines to the East Coast at a profit with AVAs that state Napa and Sonoma.

    For reference on tonnage prices on average last year. http://www.sonomawinegrape.org/news/2014-sonoma-county-crop-report

    As a producer under 10,000 cases, the likelihood of even $120/case wholesale as consistently profitable is not realistic. Then math won’t work if you pay $1000/ton to crush and $1900 for the Chardonnay or $2600 for Cabernet grapes. I’m using averages, not actually price per ton on top-quality Chardonnay or Cabernet. And that considers zero new oak, no malolactic, and bottling it asap with little or no storage costs (none of which you would do with Cabernet, as it has a cost of carry). Using screw caps, a mobile bottling line, a single label, we’re talking all in about $110/finished case in COST here in Sonoma County for Chardonnay. And that’s if you stick to the cheapest glass, label, zero time aging in barrel, screw cap only and a no frills crush without additional nickels and dimes like lees stirring (which is an added cost).

    The economics outlined above is fact, not fiction. It comes down to simple economics. If the Europeans can make a less expensive, delicious wine, great; some of us can’t make a wine that cheaply in California, based upon our region of origin and size of production. I don’t begrudge the economics of my situation, I have an understanding of it and sell where the economics make the most sense, the West Coast.

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